There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of holding a book in your hands that you crafted yourself. From choosing the fabric, paper, and binding thread to assembling the book from cover to cover, each step is an act of love and a study in detail. I completed the book shown above last weekend after participating in Ali Manning’s 5-Day Journal Challenge.
Handmade Book Club
I have made and sold more than 200 handmade books since 2009, when I opened my Etsy shop, MisterPenQuin, but only a few of them featured hand-stitched bindings. A few weeks ago, I encountered Handmade Craft Club through Vintage Page Designs on Facebook. Handmade Craft Club is an online community founded and led by Ali Manning, whose focus is teaching and encouraging the creation of handmade books with traditional methods. This means making hand-stitched books, particularly with exposed, decorative binding threads on the spine.
For the reasonable sum of $20 a month, you can learn all about crafting these types of books and journals. You’ll have access to a new project each month, exposure to a mixed media lesson, the opportunity to participate in an optional challenge, access to a tremendous library of past projects, and times to connect with others who share your passion for learning about crafting books in traditional ways. The club opens three times a year for membership, but between these times you can try a free project and then add your name to the membership waiting list. You can also follow Ali on YouTube.
What’s the Big Deal About Handmade Books?
Like me, you have probably purchased blank books and journals at your local bookstore. It’s probable they cost less than handmade ones. You know right away, however, that a handmade book or journal is special the moment you see or touch it. It reflects the personality, passion, and unique creativity of each maker. It probably also has the quality of longevity that may or may not be present in a book you buy from a retail storefront.
Handmade books have a connection with history that you cannot fail to appreciate. Just imagine the monks back in the sixth century who hand-stitched signatures (sections) of a book together, and how amazing it is that many of the same methods and materials of yesterday are being used today—admittedly with modern tools, adhesives and materials that go beyond traditional linen thread, leather covers, and vellum made from animal skins.
My first encounter with a handmade book was in sixth grade, when my classroom teacher challenged each of us to write our autobiography and to bind the pages into a book for which my art teacher provided instructions. I was hooked from the very beginning to the bookbinding process, but it wasn’t until I had been married for many years that I began making my own books, gifting them, and finally selling them on Etsy.
The 5-Day Journal Challenge
Ali’s 5-Day Journal Challenge began with gathering materials and tools, most of which were already lying about in my house. On Day 1, I fished out an old curtain valance that was no longer being used and cut it up for fabric covers. I fused it to white gift tissue using Heat n Bond Lite to make book cloth, and then set it aside. Acid-free tissue would have been ideal to use, but I used what I had.
On Day 2, I folded 100% cotton papers (Southworth resume paper) into eight signatures, or sections. Then I pressed them flat in the book press my husband, John, made for me years ago. He used two cutting boards, 4 carriage screws, and 4 washers. The alternative would have been to slide them beneath a stack of heavy books for four hours, or overnight.
On Day 3, I used a utility knife to cut chipboard for the book covers, front and back. In a perfect world, a bookmaker would likely use Lineco Acid-Free Binder’s Board or Davey’s Binder’s Board, but I recycled heavyweight chipboard from unwanted 3-ring binders. I glued the handmade book cloth to the chipboard with PVA glue, cut end papers from scrapbook paper, and adhered them to the insides of the covers.
On Day 4, I punched holes with a heavy-duty awl in the covers for sewing. You need to be careful when you do this so that the holes are not too large. A thumbtack with a plastic head or other sharp object would probably work, too. Then, I punched corresponding holes in the signature folds using a punching cradle. It’s not necessary to use a cradle, but it sure is convenient to have one. I bought mine from a seller on Etsy years ago. If you don’t have a punching cradle, you can also use an old catalog, telephone book (if you can find one!) or a book you don’t mind damaging.
When I stacked the pages between the covers to see how thick the book would be, I realized the pages did not lie flat. The folded side of the book block was higher than the other side. When this happens, Ali suggests you flatten the folds with a bone folder. If that doesn’t work, you need to redistribute the number of pages in each signature. I tried both solutions. In the end, what flattened the signatures evenly was increasing the number of signatures from 8 to 12 signatures, each with four pages inside them. I thought it was interesting that 8 signatures with 6 pages apiece did not work, but that the same number of sheets, redistributed differently, did.
On Day 5, it was time to sew. I wanted to use linen thread, as it is strong and durable, but local stores did not carry this thread and I had to place an order from a shop in Indiana. I was eager to finish the book before the thread order arrived, and Ali had suggested that perle embroidery thread could be substituted. I ran this thread through beeswax (obtainable at any fabric store) to strengthen it and began sewing. The most important thing to remember, as you stitch, is to take your time. I was pleased with the results.
What I Learned from Bookmaking
The process of making books by hand is pleasurable and rewarding when you approach it with an open mind, take it step by step, and give it your full attention. In fact, there are lessons to be learned from the process of bookmaking that probably can be applied to different types of creativity: writing, woodworking, painting, sculpture, leatherwork, and many other forms.
- You’re never too old to learn something new. “Just because you’re not immediately good at something does not mean you won’t eventually get it,” says Tom Vanderbilt in Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. It might be harder, but with practice, the unfamiliar becomes less threatening. In the process, you increase your plasticity, which is what Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind call the ability of your brain to engage flexibly with exploration and what’s new. Although I am not new to making books by hand, I am new to using traditional methods to make them. My first attempt at stitching needed some unraveling and I still need to watch a how-to video to get things right.
- Perfection is not the aim of tackling a new experience. The name of the game is progress through practice. Okay, I admit it. I am a perfectionist. But approaching something that is brand new is not a competition; no one is going to grade your effort. As you practice, you’ll get better. There are no expectations from others, so that should release you from expecting anything more than the joy of walking through a new door.
- “Use what you have,” says Ali Manning. Don’t let the lack of resources prevent you from participating in a challenge. Even if you’re a tool junkie like me, part of what makes a new experience fun and approachable is finding alternatives. Don’t have a bone folder? Use the smooth edge of a knife. Use a catalog instead of a punching cradle, or a thumbtack instead of an awl. No spreading spatula? Use a credit card, your fingers, or a spoon. No computer nearby? Use a notes or dictation app on your phone—or traditional paper.
- Passion is infectious. Share with others or teach someone what you know. Don’t hoard your knowledge. The next thing you know, others will also share; everyone wins! Online communities are perfect for making new connections, passing on knowledge, and—in the case of bookmaking—preserving an old art.
- Be prepared to unlearn what you have learned to make room for learning something new. In other words, approach a new challenge, a new task or new experience with the mind of a novice. Think about the joy of a toddler who masters walking for the first time. Openness to new experiences, according to Barry and Kaufman, in Wired to Create, is necessary to creativity.
- Follow your passion to find your creative direction. There is a link between passion and flow. What were you passionate about as a child? Is there something you do that causes you to become so absorbed that you lose track of time and your surroundings? This is when you are most open to focusing on new ideas and shutting out distractions. It probably also inspires your passion. When I am stitching one signature to another, nothing exists for me outside those moments. The same occurs when I write poetry.
Writing and making things by hand define the areas where I am most creative. Where are you most creative in your life, and what life lessons have you learned from this activity?
© 2021 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.